It took one brief interview with Claudia Fleming for the famed chef Tom Colicchio to know he wanted to put her in charge of the dessert menu at Gramercy Tavern, the luxury Manhattan restaurant he opened with Danny Meyer in 1994. She’d apprenticed in renowned Parisian bakeries, but more importantly, she shared Colicchio’s vision for a perfect meal ending: Simple and straightforward.
While other high-end kitchens were sending out towering confections festooned in spun sugar and gold leaf, the once-aspiring dancer was creating graceful compositions inspired by the seasons: Waffles with Maple-Glazed Bananas and Maple Flan in winter, Cornmeal Crepes with Sweet-Corn Ice Cream and Blackberry Compote in summer.
Pastry chefs throughout the industry took notice and began emulating her style. The James Beard Foundation named her Outstanding Pastry Chef. In 2001, she shared her secrets in “The Last Course,” hailed by Bon Appetit as “the greatest dessert cookbook in the history of the world.” But given the unfortunate timing of its release — the month after 9/11 — the book never enjoyed commercial success. Fleming left the city to open an inn and restaurant with her husband on Long Island. The book went out of print. Yet used copies continued to circulate among serious dessert aficionados — often selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.
Happily, as of last fall, “The Last Course” is back in circulation. The re-release feels so fresh and modern it’s hard to believe it’s almost 20 years old. Even more surprising is how approachable the recipes are. Chapters are organized by the defining ingredient: berries, citrus fruits, herbs and flowers, spices, chocolate, and so on. The Signature Composed Desserts chapter shows how she combines those elements on menus.
Over the holidays, I tried one of her simpler serving suggestions. I arranged slices of Guinness Stout Ginger Cake — a moist, ultra-spicy gingerbread — alongside scoops of ginger-infused ice cream and orange sections swimming in pools of warm caramel sauce. It was fun to make, fun to eat, and, like the rest of the book, as stylish as it is timeless.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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